Interview – April 2011

A.E:
Farundell is set in an English country house and is in many ways a very English novel. You’re both British and American – how does that work?

L.R.F:
Yes, it pleases me no end that my British readers assume I’m British – even my publishers thought so and were surprised, when we met for the first time, at my (slight) American accent. Although I grew up mainly in the States we were not a particularly “American” family, so I always felt a bit of an outsider, a feeling which only increased as I experienced more of the world. I’ve travelled a bit, and find England the most compatible place to live. America is difficult to understand these days, and frankly I don’t particularly want to. But of course, I’ll always be an outsider here too, albeit a more comfortable one — a useful position for a writer, I think.

A.E:
What are you working on now?

L.R.F:
I’m writing the second book in the Time and Light series, which is not really a series but an as yet unknown number of novels about the people, places and themes introduced in Farundell. It’s called Fate, and is the story of Francis Damory, Farundell’s “ghost who’s not a ghost.” It’s set in the eighteenth century, a period with which I have become utterly fascinated. People really LIVED then – it makes our era seem tepid and dull. I think because death was so present, danger so near all the time, whether from disease or violence. It was the era of the Enlightenment, when the scientific, empirical world view co-existed – not always comfortably – with the magical world view.

A.E:
What’s your working method?

L.R.F:
First I make notes in longhand in unlined, A4 notebooks. I come up with lots of ideas that then get taken over by others – it’s a process of evolution. I need to have some notion of where I want to go with the story, but am always open to changes, additions, subtractions and revelations. And of course, once the characters start to take shape, they set parameters and bring about situations that I could not have foreseen.

A.E:
Do you work in the mornings, the evenings…?

L.R.F:
I’ll work at any time of day, but early mornings are most important to me. I get up before dawn, sit and think and drink tea. Ideas come. Then I have some breakfast, make a cup of coffee and start to write. I’ll keep at it all day if I have to, am satisfied with a few hundred words and really pleased when I can produce a thousand or so; after that, I tend to be rather wrung out. I rework virtually constantly as I write, and start each day’s work by editing and improving the previous day’s. Sometimes nothing comes, I get very worried and frustrated, then realize I have to go back and think things through in a new way.

A.E:
Who are your main influences?

L.R.F:
That’s a difficult question, because so many people have influenced me in different ways. I’ve been drawn to those writers who have managed to bring a sense of the numinous into their work. Among contemporary writers Murdoch, Byatt, Lindsay Clarke, Vonnegut. The earlier, and more overt, CS Lewis and Charles Williams. I bow most deeply to John Crowley, an American writer, not well-known here, whose work is fabulous, stunning, unparalleled (read Little, Big and Egypt). I also feel the influence of writers of the past, for whom magic and metaphysics was not a “genre” as it is now: Homer, Apuleius, Shakespeare. I grew up on Greek myths and German fairy tales. In my teens I went through a big science fiction phase: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Wolfe. And, a bit later, a South American magical realist phase: Marquez, Borges, Allende. I’ve also been influenced by cinema, which, despite its many limitations, can play about with reality and perception through images and effects that bypass the rational mind. And music is very important to me. I’m listening to Baroque music these days, Handel mainly, as sung by countertenors, whose voices most closely approximate the perfection of the castrati for whom he wrote. One of my most beloved characters in Fate is a castrato superstar.

A.E:
You were a painter before you were a writer – how has that influenced you, and why did you change?

L.R.F:
I’ve always enjoyed writing – everything from a play which my fourth grade class put on for the whole school to essays on various metaphysical topics for students I’ve worked with over the years. Little stories for friends and family, and poetry, of course.

A.E:
But no unpublished novels tucked away in an attic?

L.R.F:
No. Writing a novel seemed like such a massive undertaking, though I’ve also always known it’s something I would do, eventually. I was drawn to painting because, well, it’s such a deeply pleasurable activity. I have a strongly visual imagination, I adore colour and line and texture. I love the smell of turpentine and linseed oil, the tubes of sticky, gorgeous oil paint; liquid, luminous watercolours; soft, crumbly pastels. It seems, in retrospect, a much easier thing to do than writing a novel, but at the time, I remember, I chose to pursue it because I decided that it was the most difficult thing a human could attempt. Now, of course, I think that is writing novels!

A.E:
It sounds like you look back with some nostalgia to your days as a painter.

L.R.F:
I noticed that too! It was a great time. I started painting in the mid-seventies when I was living in New York’s East Village. I had a big, cold tenement flat at the top – up five flights of stairs – of a building on Avenue B between 3rd and 4th streets. It had excellent light and was very cheap because that was at the time an extremely bad neighbourhood. I loved it. Great bars, clubs. Good friends. Strange people. Up all night painting and dancing to Eno, Bowie, Talking Heads. I’m glad I lived all that back then; I sure as hell haven’t the energy now!

A.E:
Do you paint at all now?

L.R.F:
I do paint a little, and make ceramic sculptures, and I’m planning some video-music-art-and-text works — when I finish Fate. I used to be able to work on several things concurrently, but writing is fiendishly all-consuming.

A.E:
At some point you studied both psychotherapy and Egyptology. What drew you to these subjects?

L.R.F:
I never before considered these two interests together like this, but I do glimpse a connection. I think I’ve always been fascinated by what’s behind, beneath, beyond the ordinary world. I don’t know when it started; my mother used to tell the story of how at age nine, I’d announced, at breakfast, that the only interesting things in the world were dreams and time. I studied psychotherapy because I’m fascinated by what’s behind the roles people play, the personae they deploy, the difficulties and confusions of the struggle to be, or to avoid being, our true selves. And I got into Egyptology because I wanted to understand the ideas behind the ideas behind the ideas that make our view of the world – I wanted to read the world’s most ancient metaphysical texts (the Pyramid Texts, and later compilations such as the so-called Books of the Dead, or, in a better translation, of Coming Forth by Day), in the original. If I had a parallel life (and I suspect there are more than a few) I’d be a proper academic Egyptologist.

A.E:
Do you believe in magic?

L.R.F:
It depends on how you define “magic.”

A.E:
That’s rather evasive.

L.R.F:
Sorry. It’s a difficult subject because people have a lot of preconceptions. Let me first say that I don’t “believe in” anything, if that means taking something on faith with no proof. I think everyone should evaluate the nature of reality based on their own experiences and the meticulous application of reason. So one should not believe anything unreasonable – but neither should one reject a notion without testing it for oneself.  Rather than “beliefs” I like to think in terms of working hypotheses, subject to constant testing.

A.E:
That’s a very academic answer. Can’t you just tell us what you think magic is?

L.R.F:
Apologies again. The simple definition: magic is the art and science of change.

A.E:
But everything is always changing.

L.R.F:
Which suggests…?

A.E:
Everything is magic?

L.R.F:
Couldn’t have said it better myself, but let me amplify. Magic is simply a word for the process by which change occurs – the hidden mechanism, if you will, by which reality moves into manifestation – hence the link with imagination and language. Everyone is “doing magic” all the time: it is the fabric of consciousness, the very ground of our existence. There is nothing “supernatural” about it.

A.E:
One last question. Farundell has been described as “like basil ice cream”; also as both traditional and experimental. Your writing seems not to fit into any particular category – is that a deliberate choice?

L.R.F:
I like the basil ice cream metaphor; I suspect I’d like basil ice cream, though I’ve never tried it. I didn’t set out to write any particular sort of novel, just one that I would like. For me, characters come first – I need to be able to like and identify with at least some of them. I’m also very interested in emotions, and want to share the feelings of the people I’m reading about. That’s why I eschew the omniscient narrator – too distancing. And I find I’m easily bored by stories that remain on the surface of things – I like novels that probe beneath appearances, raise questions, challenge assumptions, open doors to new ideas and ways of perceiving. But most important, I suppose, is simply writing well – that’s something I work very hard on, often revising a single sentence or a paragraph a dozen times. I think perhaps language itself is the great love of my life.